Working Mother – extract from “A Call From France”

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My working day varied enormously. Only people who run their own businesses really know what work is. If you are employed by somebody else, you go in to work, do whatever it is you have to do, then go home again. You get paid for it. It may be easy stuff or difficult stuff, but essentially you get paid for a specific job and it is up to you to do it properly.

People who run their own businesses have to create a situation, in our case out of thin air, out of which they can earn some money. Nobody said to us “do this and I will pay you for it”. We had to cause ourselves to be paid. I, in the first instance, had to persuade my client (having got the client at all) to buy a house in France. Not just any house in France, but a house on my books. In order to get to this situation I first had to place advertisements in magazines and newspapers in the UK. This was long before the internet. I then had to answer the phone, the fax and the post several hundred times, enclosing details of five or six properties each time, in order to get one solitary client into my car. I worked out that for every 200 sets of details I posted, I got one client. Out of the clients who got as far as looking at properties with me, about one in every seven would buy.

Having got the client to agree to buy something – invariably an old fermette in need of repairs – I then had to get them to sign papers called a Compromis de Vente, which is a kind of promise to buy. At that stage I also had to persuade them to part with a cheque for 10% of the value of the property. This was sometimes done in the office of a notaire, but was also regularly done in my own little office at Tulips with the washing machine chugging away in the background , the smell of burnt toast and the sound of children playing. The cheque was always made out to the notaire. From that moment responsibility should have fallen off my shoulders and onto his, though it never really did, and it was his job to do a search while I kept the clients informed.

Of course, the clients always referred back to me, from sensible questions like the perimeter fences to silly questions about the height of the skirting boards. If something went wrong it was always my fault – even the weather seemed to be my domain – and people never wanted to pay for anything.

It was, however, a neat little business. My clients looked to me for sorting out utilities and insurances for their properties, and I was able to make a small charge which helped to swell my commission a little and – Lord knows – we needed every penny.

And before all this, of course, I had to find the property for sale, negotiate a sensible price with the vendor whereby he would get what he wanted and I would pick up a commission, take photos, type up details, photocopy them. The properties were all over the place, as much as an hour’s drive away. As time wore on I learnt to not go further than half an hour in any one direction which gave me a good enough catchment area. Sometimes I would go to great lengths – taking Bernie to the child minder and making a detour into Tonnay Boutonne for another film for the camera, then drive off using up my precious petrol, only to find that the property was totally unsuitable for sale to the British. I rapidly learnt that the vendor’s description over the phone was utterly meaningless.

My favourite notaire, Maitre Sarge, often kept me informed as to what was for sale. He was an invaluable help to me. He was a kind of dark brown person. Not the colour of his skin, but his personality … unsmiling, deadly serious, infinitely careful, studious, sallow skin … yet a consistent and unwavering ally for me who, over the years, saw me through several fraught events. Although he never spoke to me in English I gather he could speak it quite well. He certainly understood it well.

I very rarely advertised for properties for sale for the jungle drums worked a treat and word rapidly went round that I was the English agent who would work wonders and get the best price – as indeed I did.

It was a sharp, curt, cut-throat business. Not least of the stress was the bureaucracy for it seemed that whatever I was doing was interdit unless I had some piece of paper from some authority somewhere: yet nobody (the notaire, the accountant, the town hall) ever seemed to know which bit of paper, or where or how. We had to be very quick-off-the mark for competition from French estate agents was vicious, and so was the attitude of French building firms. We were intensely disliked by the local French and, although some British families made a happy move to France, the majority regretted their purchase within a year or two, blamed us, and disliked us too.
It was a lonely job that I did alone. I grit my teeth, hardened my jaw-line, bit the bullet, just got on with it.

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Posted on 21/05/2012 by Catherine
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